Europe’s retreaders are currently realizing to their cost, that commitment to sustainable products often must take a back seat to lower prices. Although offering proven environmental advantages, retreaded truck tyres are still loosing market share to the cheap and often non-retreadable imported new tyres.

In order to prosper, an environmentally-friendly product also must bring a price benefit. With its micronized rubber powder (MRP) products, Lehigh Technologies is able to offer this double advantage.

lehigh_logo (1)In a recent meeting between Tyres & Accessories and the vice-president and general manager of Lehigh Technologies Kedar Murthy and the company’s MRP business development manager for the Europe, Middle East and Africa regions – Josep Freixas, the company’s representatives explained how the market was taking the concept of new tyres containing materials made from ELTs.

According to Murphy, manufacturers have well and truly gotten used to the idea. He disclosed that Lehigh Technologies is currently selling its MRP to six of the top ten global tire makers. But convincing these tyre majors to get on board hasn’t been easy – Lehigh first needed to prove the practicality of its product and supply chain and then to pass extensive audits before beginning to supply – this process took in some cases up to two years– however Lehigh’s persistence has payed off. Until today over 400 million tyres have been produced using MRP, with annually 34,000 tonnes of the material being used in the tyre production.

“Now we want to leverage this success in Europe and develop relationships with tyre companies that are Eurocentric,” says Murthy. “Four of the six top global tyre makers we sell to operate facilities and have regional bases in Europe.” Selling in Europe means offering REACH compliant materials, and Lehigh Technologies believes it can best serve the market by setting up local production within the region. After entering into a partnership with Spanish recycling firm Hera Holdings in 2012, last June the two companies set up a joint venture operation located at Hera Holding’s tyre recycling facility in Navarra, an operation that previously specialised in the production of crumb rubber for field turf.

Kedar Murthy

Josep Freixas trained as a chemical engineer and closely connected with the Lehigh Spain joint venture, has said that the new plant in Navarra is expected to enter full operation this September after undergoing various approvals in the second quarter of the year. The facility is expected to go into service with an initial output of around half its 10,000 tonne per annum design capacity. He has added that the Lehigh Spain facility would meet all European, Middle Eastern and African demand for MRP. “Currently we’re seeding Europe with material from the US and building the market, and the Lehigh Spain plant will take over from this.”

When Freixas has said European customers are being supplied from the US, he has referred to the present arrangement that sees the Navarra recycling facility produce end of life tyre material that is around 1mm to 4mm in diameter and then send this to Lehigh Technologies’ in Atlanta, where it is put through a cryomill in order to make it REACH compliant. The resultant material is then sent back to Europe. “This is only a transitory situation until the cryomill is installed in Europe in the third quarter of 2016,” he explained.

New applications and diversification

cryo-mill-sml-800x450Kedar Murthy has stated that MRP is “slowly becoming a standard ingredient in the tyre industry.” Although the value proposition that MRP offers has been squeezed by the significant drop in natural rubber prices over the past two years, the vice-president and general manager has said that there are still savings to be made by using MRP. “And the smart tyre companies are thinking about the future when raw material costs go up. They can’t and won’t stay at current levels forever.”

Lehigh Technologies produces two MRP products, PolyDyne and MicroDyne; tyre industry customers purchase the first of these. The proportion of MRP used in the production of a tyre depends on its application, with truck and bus tyres typically using a three to six per cent mix and passenger car tyres a three to nine per cent mix. Both carbon black and silica silane formulations are available. Alongside its use in tread compounds, MRP is now also utilised in sidewalls – Murthy has said that adding MRP to a tyre sidewall compound leads to a marked reduction in the occurrence of cracks – and Lehigh’s R&D centre in Atlanta works closely with tyre makers to fine-tune

MRP for further tyre components.

In addition to working with tyre makers, the experts at Lehigh Technologies’ R&D centre have developed further rubber and plastic sector applications for MRP. While Lehigh doesn’t enter a new market until is it certain MRP can offer a value proposition there, the company wishes and aims to diversify its portfolio in order, as Murthy has put it, to “smooth out any bumps in the market.” Efforts to diversify have been highly successful so far – while the tyre market accounted for 90 per cent of the company’s sales six years ago, today this figure is just 60 per cent, with much organic growth (Lehigh’s turnover is increasing at a rate of 25 to 30 per cent each year) accounted for by products tailored to new applications.

Asia and the ‘road to one billion’

The new facility in Spain brings Lehigh Technologies’ global MRP capacity up to 80,000 tonnes per annum. The plant in Atlanta is capable of delivering 70,000 tonnes of MRP a year, and over half its output is sold in the North American market. A further quarter of the company’s products now go to Asia, and the market there is (according to figures from 2014) growing at an annual rate of 25 per cent. It would therefore make sense to set up a cryomill facility within that region, and this is exactly what Lehigh Technologies intends to do.

“Today we’re selling commercially to several countries in Asia, and our plans are to establish a facility there in 2017 or early 2018,” says Kedar Murthy. “This will be on a similar scale to our plant in Spain.” Although Lehigh has already decided upon a facility comparable to that in Navarra in terms of size and output, Murthy has pointed out that certain aspects of the planned manufacturing footprint expansion have not yet been finalised; for example, it hasn’t yet been decided whether Lehigh will work, as it does in Spain, with a local partner in Asia.

It’s still less than a decade since Lehigh Technologies produced its first MRP, and only five years since the company launched ‘Road to One Billion’, an industry-wide campaign to see a billion tyres produced with sustainable materials on the road. So far, Lehigh’s MRP has reached almost half this goal on its own, and should demand for PolyDyne continue to grow at current rates, the billion-mark will most likely be reached within the next five years.

Article and images source: Tyre Press